Motion to Approve
My Lords, the International Sikh Youth Federation, which I shall refer to as the ISYF, is a separatist movement committed to the creation of Khalistan, an independent Sikh state in the Punjab region of south Asia, and was established in the 1980s. The ISYF’s attacks have, in the past, included assassinations, bombings and kidnappings, mainly directed against Indian officials and Indian interests. The ISYF has been proscribed as a terrorist organisation in the UK since March 2001. The decision to proscribe it was taken after extensive consideration and in the light of a full assessment of available information, and it was approved by Parliament. It is clear that the ISYF was concerned in terrorism at that time.
Having reviewed with other countries what information is available about the current activities of the ISYF, after careful consideration the Home Secretary has concluded that there is now not sufficient evidence to support a reasonable belief that the ISYF is currently concerned in terrorism as defined by Section 3(5) of the Terrorism Act 2000. Under that section, the Home Secretary has the power to remove an organisation from the list of proscribed organisations if she believes that it no longer meets the statutory test for proscription. Accordingly, the Home Secretary has brought this order before the House and, if it is approved, it will mean that being a member of, or providing support to, this organisation will cease to be a criminal offence on the day that the order comes into force.
The decision to deproscribe the ISYF was taken after extensive consideration and in the light of a full assessment of available information. As noble Lords will appreciate, it would not be appropriate for us to discuss any specific intelligence that informed the decision-making process.
The Government do not condone any terrorist activity, and deproscription of a proscribed group should not be interpreted as condoning any previous activities of this group. The British Government were always clear that the ISYF was a brutal terrorist organisation. Groups that do not meet the threshold for proscription are not free to spread hatred, fund terrorist activity or incite violence as they please, and the police have comprehensive powers to take action against individuals under the criminal law.
We are determined to detect and disrupt all terrorist threats, whether home-grown or international. Proscription is just one tool in the considerable armoury at the disposal of the Government, the police and the Security Service to disrupt terrorist activity.
The Government continue to exercise the proscription power in a proportionate manner, in accordance with the law. We recognise that proscription potentially interferes with an individual’s rights—in particular, the rights protected by Article 10 on freedom of expression and Article 11 on freedom of association in the European Convention on Human Rights—and so should be exercised only where absolutely necessary. A decision to deproscribe is taken only after great care and consideration of a case, and it is appropriate that it must be approved by both Houses. If agreed, the order will come into force on 18 March. I beg to move.
I thank the Minister for his explanation of the background to, and purpose of, the order. As he said, it amends the Terrorism Act 2000 by removing the International Sikh Youth Federation from the list of proscribed organisations, meaning that, if the order is passed, it will no longer be proscribed as an organisation concerned in terrorism within the meaning of Section 3(5) of the Act.
As the Minister said, the international Sikh Youth Federation was added to the list of proscribed organisations under an order in 2001. Proscription has a number of consequences. These include it becoming a criminal offence to belong to or invite support for the organisation, or to arrange a meeting in support of the organisation. It also means that the financial assets of the organisation become terrorist property and can be subject to freezing and seizure.
Under the terms of the Terrorism Act 2000, a proscribed organisation, or any person affected by the proscription of the organisation, can apply to the Secretary of State for deproscription. If the application is refused, the applicant may appeal to the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission. According to the Explanatory Memorandum, the Secretary of State has received such an application for the deproscription of the International Sikh Youth Federation and has now decided that there is insufficient information to conclude that the group remains concerned in terrorism.
The application was made by three members of the Sikh community in early February last year. It should have been dealt with within 90 days, but was not since the response was not made until the end of July last year. The response was to the effect that the Secretary of State still had a reasonable belief that the International Sikh Youth Federation was concerned in terrorism, but no reasons were given.
The applicants appealed on the basis that the Government had not given any reasons for the refusal to deproscribe, contrary to the rule of law, and that the ISYF was not concerned in terrorism. The Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission directed the Home Secretary to provide reasons to support her position. However, on the day that the reasons and evidence were due, the commission was told that the Home Secretary would not now defend her decision but would lay an order for deproscription, which is what we have in front of us today.
Of course, the inevitable question that has been asked is what new information had come to light between the end of July, when the Home Secretary declined the application for deproscription, and the decision at the door of the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission some six months later not to defend that decision—new information that could not have been known or found out at the time of the decision at the end of July, over which the Home Secretary said there had been extensive consideration and a full assessment of the available information.
There is a feeling in some quarters that being required to provide reasons for the decision not to deproscribe may have been a not insignificant factor behind the very different decision then made by the Home Secretary to lay an order for deproscription. I have no doubt that the Minister will wish to respond to that point. Perhaps he could also say, without disclosing its nature or content, whether significant new information became available for the first time between the end of July 2015 and December 2015 which proved a key factor in reaching the very different conclusion from that reached in July: that the International Sikh Youth Federation should no longer be proscribed.
The Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation has previously suggested that once an organisation has been proscribed, there should be a review of that decision within specified time limits to ensure that it continues to be justified and necessary. Since proscription is currently for an indefinite time, are the Government now looking at adopting a procedure and process along the lines suggested by the independent reviewer, and to which I have just referred?
I am sure I am not the only noble Lord to have received information from the Sikh Federation UK for this debate. Its briefing indicates its clear view that the ban that this order seeks to lift has been in existence for so many years as a result of pressure from the Indian Government. That was strongly denied by the Government in the House of Commons two days ago, and I assume that the Minister will repeat the Government’s position when he responds.
Proscription means that the financial assets of the organisation concerned can be subject to freezing and seizure. If this order is agreed, will any funds or financial assets of the ISYF be released and, if so, when? Which other bodies, organisations or countries will be advised that the ISYF has been taken off the list of proscribed organisations?
We support the order. In the House of Commons on Tuesday, the shadow Home Office Minister Lyn Brown MP said that she hoped the Sikhs in our communities could now look forward to a new relationship with the Government. She said that she had met representatives of the UK Sikh Federation who had told her about the real difficulties that have affected former members of the International Sikh Youth Federation, including naturalisation and international travel issues. The UK Sikh Federation also says that it has found it challenging for well over a decade to represent the community properly due to the association with the ISYF, and that there has been an associated reluctance on the part of Ministers and officials to engage with the federation. If the Minister accepts that this has been the situation in the light of the IYSF’s proscription, will one effect of deproscription be to change that, and, if so, in what practical way will that change be reflected?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his questions. I will try to respond to them in the order in which they were asked.
The noble Lord’s first question was about the changes that occurred between July, when the application was considered, and December when it was about to be presented to the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission. Following careful consideration of the available evidence, the Home Secretary decided to maintain proscription of the group in July on the basis that she considered that the evidence demonstrated that the group remained concerned in terrorism. However, in December 2015, having further reviewed with other countries the available information about the current activities of the ISYF, after careful consideration the Home Secretary concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to support a reasonable belief that the ISYF was currently concerned in terrorism, as defined by Section 3(5) of the Act.
The Home Secretary considers various pieces of open-source material—the noble Lord asked about the nature and content of the material—when determining whether a group is engaged in terrorism, but she also considers material obtained via the intelligence agencies. Of course, as the noble Lord suggested, it would not be appropriate to discuss the specific material that informed the decision-making process, particularly details of the information reviewed and how this altered the assessment of the IYSF’s current activities. We always seek to present as much information as we can, but I cannot comment on matters relating to intelligence.
The noble Lord asked about David Anderson’s concerns. Clearly, David Anderson is a very well-respected adviser to the Government on terrorism legislation and in fact we are dealing with a lot of his recommendations in another context on other legislation. We look very closely at his proposals. David Anderson had stated that,
“the Home Secretary had … agreed to a process for deproscribing groups that no longer met the statutory test, and that a preliminary analysis had unearthed 14 groups that may be in this category”.
While it is not government policy to provide a running commentary on any proscribed organisation, I can confirm that officials did not recommend that the ISYF should be deproscribed at that time.
Under the current regime, the organisation or any person affected by proscription can submit a written application to the Home Secretary requesting that she considers whether a specified organisation should be removed from the list of proscribed organisations. We believe that addresses the noble Lord’s concern as to whether there should be a sunset clause in relation to proscription matters.
In respect of the possible impact of proscription and the points raised by the Sikh Federation in relation to visa and citizenship applications, the Home Secretary has to be satisfied that an individual seeking citizenship meets the statutory requirement for citizenship and is of good character. A range of issues is considered when determining whether an applicant meets this test and an individual’s current or former membership of a proscribed organisation may well be a factor as well as the individual’s specific activities.
The noble Lord raised an important point about the nature of the relationship with the Sikh community within the UK. This is, of course, extremely important. In relation to the point about India, I can say without hesitation that diplomatic pressure did not lead to the ban on the ISYF having been maintained since 2001. Proscription of a group can remain only if there is compelling evidence to support a reasonable belief that it is currently concerned in terrorism as required under Section 3(5) of the Act.
Regarding engagement with the Sikh community, I do not want at this stage to expand the deproscription debate into a broader one on engagement with other organisations. The focus of our discussion should be deproscription, which is quite distinct from other areas of government engagement.
The noble Lord asked whether we intended to engage with other countries. We engage with other countries in considering whether an organisation should be proscribed or deproscribed. It is an important part of the process and we will inform other countries with an interest in this deproscription of our decision.
In relation to the point about relations with the wider Sikh community, we have some distinguished members of the Sikh community in this House and of course recognise the immense contribution they make to the wider community. We hope that any misunderstanding that may have occurred in the past can be removed and that we can have a more positive relationship going forward if this deproscription has been a barrier.
I do not want to convey in any sense that we did not believe that there was just cause for the then Labour Government to proscribe this organisation in 2001. There was clear evidence then that it should be proscribed, but we have now looked at it again and arrived at a different conclusion.
Proscription is not targeted at any particular faith or social grouping but is based on clear evidence that an organisation is concerned in terrorism. It is the Home Secretary’s firm opinion that, on the basis of the available evidence, the ISYF no longer meets the statutory test for proscription and it is appropriate that it is removed from the list of proscribed organisations in accordance with the deproscription process set out in law. I thank the noble Lord for his questions and commend the order to the House.